On Penn State, Joe Paterno, and how we react to scandals

By Finesse

Penn State f’d up, big time. Everyone who is calling for accountability, for investigation, and for more answers is right. It’s what the situation and the law require, and I support it.  [For more, listen to our podcast].

However, in the hectic aftermath of last weekend’s indictment, everyone is focusing on the questions that need to be asked about Penn State officials. It’s easy to pile on. What’s tougher is to think about our reaction to scandals. Why are we so certain about things? And why do we have to proclaim our certainty immediately? 

Why Didn’t Anyone Do More?

While there is some dispute about what Paterno was told versus what he told AD Tim Curley, what’s undisputed is that Paterno had knowledge of inappropriate conduct and didn’t do any of the following things: call the police, contact Sandusky, call a school counselor, etc. As he finally acknowledged in his retirement announcement today, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

In 2011, it’s easy to sit and say that we know what Paterno should have done in 2002.  Almost everyone agrees now that he, and a lot of other people, should have done more.  There was willful blindness at various levels of the university which, when it allows more kids to be harmed, is the functional equivalent of knowing everything and doing nothing. Or maybe it’s just the Bystander Effect — the more people who know something bad is happening, the less likely it is that any of them will actually do something about it. Whatever it is, it’s bad.

But if we’re going to ask the tough questions of Paterno, let’s ask them both ways and try, even if it’s difficult, to imagine that this isn’t so black-and-white. We all want to think that we’d do the “right” thing. I want to think that if I were told something similar that I’d know what to do and I’d do it. But if we take what we know and weave it together, it’s tougher. 

As Drew Magary wrote on Deadspin:

Sandusky was Paterno’s colleague (and one would assume friend) for over three decades. So imagine someone coming up to you and telling you that your friend of 30 years was raping a kid in the shower. Would you believe it? Would you want to believe it? Probably not the first time you hear it. Would you go to the police? What if the grad assistant was wrong and your friend’s life is ruined because of a misunderstanding? You might not even want to explore the matter further because you can’t tolerate the idea of someone you trusted doing such monstrous things. I think the reason Paterno went to his AD and didn’t go to the cops is because it provided him with the chance to have it both ways. This way, he was able to “report” it, without having to be the person who takes the significantly braver step of actually calling the police. Problem solved. Conscience cleared.

Read Sally Jenkins’ article in the Washington Post where she interviews a former FBI agent, Ken Lanning, who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles.  Even if you don’t agree with her, the ultimate point is that what seems obvious to us now may not have been so easy at the time.  She writes:

“Whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Swimming, or Little League, you look at these groups and say, why do they keep screwing this up?” Lanning [former FBI agent who spent 35 years profiling pedophiles] asks.  

According to the “acquaintance molester” profile, it’s probably a mistake to place all of the blame on Paterno personally. Paterno was perhaps in the worst position to see or judge the alleged behavior, because Sandusky was his valued assistant from 1966-1999.  

“It’s hard to identify those people close to you as a potential molester, because you know them so well,” Lanning says. No one wants to believe such a thing of a friend. 

Which is exactly why someone at Penn State’s institutional level should have done better. It was the responsibility of Paterno’s more dispassionate superiors Spanier, Schultz and Curley to take a much colder-eyed, distanced organizational view of Sandusky’s alleged behavior. Instead, they failed all along the line.  

“An organization is bound to a higher standard; it has an obligation to rise above” the personal, Lanning says.

These are not meant as excuses for Paterno’s failure to do more, but it’s the beginning of an explanation. As more and more details have emerged in the days since the indictment, what’s become even more clear is that a lot of people had suspicions about Sandusky, and some, like Mike McQueary, had definitive evidence. What’s also clear is that none of them did enough.

I’m willing to believe that all of the Penn State officials implicated in this scandal wish they would have done more, not just because some are facing criminal charges, but because they realize that their inaction in the face of enough evidence that should have spurred them to more action helped enable a man to commit more crimes. I don’t believe that Curley, Spanier, Shultz, Paterno, McQueary, State College Police or anyone at The Second Mile “support” child rape. They collectively made morally flawed decisions, and possibly illegal ones, when they had a chance to do something about it.

So, why didn’t any of these people do more? Is it because they are all morally bankrupt, corrupt people, who care more about Penn State football than the well-being of children? All of them? What about the nuns who turn a blind eye to the priests? What about mothers who don’t say anything even when they have suspicions about people in their own house?  As much as we are tempted to make things into a yes/no, black/white situation, sometimes there are shades of gray. 

Why Do We React The Way We Do?

When society reacts to scandals, there is such a temptation to be immediate, complete, and severe in our judgment.  It’s not good enough to be outraged on Tuesday if you could have been outraged on Monday. So we read the headlines, read the salacious details, make our judgments, and move on to the next scandal. We rarely slow down to give something a second thought or to try to actually understand what happened and why.

Here, the alleged crimes by Sandusky are so heinous that it has sparked a predictable “burn-in-hell” type sentiment toward the individuals involved, the football program, and the entire university. Some woman from the Washington Post is even calling for the football program to be disbanded permanently. As in, forever.

But why are we judging so quickly and decisively?  Why with such certainty, severity and venom?  Why the race to be first with outrage, first to the moral high-ground, and first to shout “Shame on Penn State” or “Joe must go”?

In this case, it’s predictable because child rape is the easiest of all crimes to be outraged about and to have the masses support your outrage. It’s a layup for a column writer: revered institution + revered figurehead + graphic details + alleged cover up + universally reviled crime = perfect opportunity to say something dramatic, to try to write something powerful, and to be outraged. After all, who is going to disagree with a column saying that child rape is bad and more should have been done to stop it?

But given the early stages of this case and the ongoing and alarming discovery of even more people who knew about this but didn’t do enough, why not slow down and be a little bit more measured in our judgment of Paterno?  If what happened was immoral and wrong — and by the looks of it, it was — then it will still be immoral and wrong tomorrow.  And a month from now.  I don’t have to scream it as loud as I can today.

After all, most people think there is more to this story … but what if the “more” to the story turns out to be that these guys knew less about Sandusky than we think? Or that they did more to stop it than we think? I know that in light of the specificity of the indictments that it’s hard to imagine that — believe me, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Curley and Spanier didn’t know more than they let on — but think about this: Why is almost all of the skepticism about the indictment that it doesn’t go far enough? Why is there near universal distrust of government … except when it comes to indictments?

A lot of people have convicted, sentenced, and executed Paterno with complete and total certainty.  Perhaps the facts, as they come in, will bear that out.  Perhaps those who have determined that Penn State and Joe Paterno are evil will turn out to be right.
But I’d rather be right after we know everything than wrong before we know it all.

Based on what we know now, Paterno’s failure to do more does not make him the moral equivalent of Jerry Sandusky; instead, it means the good things he’s done over 50+ years at Penn State are still good, but he failed to live up to his own high standards. He will pay a price for that. And if we find out that there’s more to it, then he will pay an even steeper price.

So Who Should Go?

Curley and Schultz are rightfully gone. Graham Spanier, who has always struck me as a guy who really liked Graham Spanier, should be next to go, not only because of any specific poor conduct on his part in this scandal, but because the university should hit the reset button on him anyway to help clear this stain. [UPDATE: Spanier is out].

[Side note. Dear Jerry Sandusky, Please stop wearing Penn State clothing in public. Thank you. Sincerely, Everyone Ever.]

Paterno is retiring at the end of the season. In my mind, it would have been absurd to have him back next season, so that’s not really news. And to help move on from this, the entire coaching staff, Tom Bradley and Jay Paterno included, should be purged at the end of the year. Clean house, then call Urban Meyer. In fact, call anyone except Todd Graham.

The closer question is whether Paterno should be gone now. I’m genuinely conflicted and, yes, I’m hedging. I get why people are saying he needs to go, and as discussed on the podcast, this situation is probably too big for him at this point in his career/life, so that could very well be the best course. He hasn’t handled press conferences well in years, so exposing him to this crush may make an already ugly PR situation that much more of a nightmare. 

But assuming that he’s been truthful — and that’s what the attorney general said — then I’m not sure that all that much more harm is done if he finishes out the season. There will certainly be outrage if he keeps coaching, but just as I wouldn’t think of joining a “Joe Must Stay” rally, I wouldn’t join the protests either.  [Moot point. I know, he’s out].

What Next?

No matter how this ultimately plays out, the reputation of Penn State as an institution is tarnished. It will be the target of outrage and the subject of ridicule for many years to come. As an alum, and with a ton of family who are also alumni, that’s a really sad part of this.

But there is often a galvanizing effect when one of your institutions is attacked.  I wrote about this in the wake of the Roethlisberger scandal (the 2010 one, not the 2008 or 2006 ones).  While no Steelers fans were condoning his behavior, the fact that the organization became the target of outrage and ridicule made the fanbase coalesce around itself. Steeler Nation had a collective chip on its drunk shoulder last season.

The way Penn State has handled all of this sucks. At minimum, they’re guilty of not doing enough. At worst, some are even guilty of crimes. But Penn State is bigger than Graham Spanier and Tim Curley. As hard as it is to believe, it’s bigger than even Joe Paterno. The people who go there, who work there, and who went there didn’t do anything wrong and, last time I checked, the entire university isn’t indicted. So while we may not be proud of our administration or Coach Paterno, we can still be proud to be Penn State alumni. I am. And that’s why this weekend I’ll be rooting as hard as I ever have for Penn State to beat Nebraska. In my Penn State t-shirt.

[For more, listen to our podcast].


14 thoughts on “On Penn State, Joe Paterno, and how we react to scandals

  1. This is difficult in a way unlike any event that I have experienced. It's certainly not the worst thing to happen to me – in fact it didn't happen to me – but it feels like an immensely personal betrayal. A betrayal by an institution that helped shape my character. Maybe for that reason I somehow feel a second hand responsibility. I know that defies logic but feelings often leave reason as an outsider. The rush to judge in my case is not directed so much at specific individuals but rather a rush to judge my own reaction. I want my university to take the highest moral ground from this point forward, I want my university to be the Penn State the whole nation thought it to be a week ago. I always took great pride in our "clean program" reputation even above winning football games. The school had a persona that allowed me to share the glow. If I was so willing to identify with that "non-personal" positive than it is only right that I also have to somewhat identify and learn from this "non-personal" negative. I know what I am about to say may sound sanctimonious, it even does to me as I write it – but the only way to move forward and regain the Penn State reputation is to do our best to individually live that reputation.

  2. I feel that your article should be a prerequisite read before any commentator on TV speaks about the Penn State scandal in the hopes that it would color their commentary beyond the visceral and towards the civil. Clearly, this event will sadly stain Penn State for a generation.

  3. You make a mistake when you say Paterno did not " call the police, contact Sandusky, call a school counselor, etc". In 2002 Coach Joe contacted the head of the town municipal police. A week later the witness McQuery was interviewed by that same head of police.If you're looking for a scapegoat, then direct your hate at Schultz who failed to do his job and arrest the molester (or at least open an investigation).

  4. Well done amigos. There are two issues I take with this article. First, you quote Drew Magary from Deadspin and use his analogy of "what if you were told your friend of 30 years was raping children. Would you believe it/go to the police?" But only touches one part of the situation. Sandusky was JoePa's subordinate and using JoePa's facilities to for his horrible acts. The duty extends far beyond that of just a friend. Consequently, yes, I feel that JoePa is coupable and was properly fired. Next, I understand that this article centered primarily on JoePa, but I think it's a mistake not to talk more about McQueary. Here is a man who apparently witnessed Sandusky buttbanging a 10 year old, then went home, and told his dad. I know without a doubt, that if I saw a 50+ year old man raping a boy, I would report it to the police immediately, and perhaps try to physically intervene. McQueary is a piece of shit. JoePa is the bishop.

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